There are moments that define you, for better or worse, scattered throughout life. The happy, the sad, the shattering. Arrivals, departures and all that’s in between. And then there are the moments which suspend you, that have the potential to break you completely but only fracture – a creased page in the centre of your story.
The ambiguous grief suffered by those around a man who fakes his own death only to return years later is the subject dealt with on Mammoth Penguins and Friends’ new album John Doe. From the record’s opening domestic sounds of tea cups nudging against saucers through lush strings and folk picking, and electronic bleep and scratch around indie-esque guitar, the album weaves this story, each track the view of someone around the disappearing John Doe. The not knowing, the resignation, the hope, the questions without answers in living through this event are all beautifully, painfully, and painstakingly crafted here.
Many will already know Mammoth Penguins, led by indiepop royalty Emma Kupa, but musically the addition of the ‘and Friends’ to the Penguin party has changed the shape of the band’s sound significantly. Haiku Salut’s Sophie Barkerwood and Joe Bear add programming, samples and synths, while Russell Lomas adds violin. The band also added to their three-piece indie stomp as bass player Mark Boxhall made field recordings across the space of a month, and to the tracks are the subtle addition of photocopiers, butter being scraped onto toast and Ramsgate beach. This brings a depth, a startling reality to the tales being told, sharpening their poignancy.
From those at the epicentre we get the innocence and disassociation of ‘The Child’, and album closer ‘The Wife’, a piano and found sound scratch beyond Kupa’s high, wavering and yet never-less-than-sure vocal. The effects of the disappearance ripple outward, to the dehumanising monologue of ‘The Line Manager’ and then sloshing back with two more up-tempo numbers in ‘The Ex-girlfriend’ and ‘The Ex-girlfriend Pt 2’. Each track has its own viewpoint, and its own distinct sound, revealing the mundanity and the monument of every day life and one person’s decision; but together the songs bring comfort and sadness in knowing even broken hearts keep beating.
Concept albums are not without stigma, often feeling heavy-handed and overwrought, and – while the subject matter here could easily have been rendered that way – it is the expert crafting of gentle yet raw emotion and melodic resonance which make John Doe an album of exceptional bittersweet beauty.
John Doe is out 13 October via wiaiwya.